Trump has his own ‘Ben Rhodes’: Machiavellian sartorialist Michael Anton

Trump has his own ‘Ben Rhodes’: Machiavellian sartorialist Michael Anton
Niccolo Machiavelli, muse of Michael Anton. (Detail of portrait by Santi di Tito, 1536-1603)

[Ed. – If his name were Herbert Schlickbold, this would all seem much less exotic and fascinating.]

Few who knew him back in the day as an establishment speechwriter saw Anton’s specific turn to populism coming. A former co-worker from the Bush White House said it was akin to seeing a “perfectly normal” colleague from back in the day suddenly publish an essay trying to convince readers that he was Napoleon Bonaparte. But Kesler, who had watched Anton’s intellectual development over the years, disputed the idea that his former pupil had gone off the Straussian reservation, pointing to an essay (written under his own name) in which he trashed the San Francisco tech elite as “loyal to nothing and no one but themselves and their own messianic ambitions to remake the world into a playground for Übermenschen.”

Anton, self-styled intellectual and amateur sartorialist, fits uneasily into Trump’s base, particularly the fringe elements of the alt-right that have supported his ascendance. He, too, appears sensitive to separate his doctrine from some of the comments one might read on Breitbart. “Could I just ask you bluntly,” he recently asked Yahoo’s Hunter Walker, “are you going to, like, repeat any of this bulls**t that I’m a white nationalist and anti-Semite?” Indeed, as conservative CNN commentator Matt Lewis put it to me, Anton was not a true alt-right figure. But, according to Lewis, Anton’s Reagan-era conservatism, combined with his “apocalyptic outlook” on America’s future, overlaps with the alt-right’s xenophobic impulses, thereby establishing an uneasy common ground between them and the mainstream conservative salon-goers of Washington. “I’d say maybe that every alt-righter agrees with the “Flight 93” essay, but not everyone who liked the essay is an alt-righter,” Lewis observed.

But the former colleague of Anton’s rejected the premise outright, arguing that Anton was using his urbanity as cover for his “ethno-nationalist, nativist” urges. “Most folks have beliefs that they cultivate over time,” his former colleague said, referring not just to Anton, but others of his ilk. “But to have that become a high-thread count suit of armor that you wear around the world seems to be something decidedly different.”

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